Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, comes out this week on DVD. Beginning with its opening quotation from The Book of Job, through its 15-minute visual history of the universe, to its cryptic ending, this is a film that invites questions about “meaning” as well as the writer/director’s intent.
Admirers and critics have written extensively about the film’s “message” — search the Internet and you’ll find hundreds of comments that describe particular scenes and discuss their symbolism. While many viewers seem perplexed by this movie, to me it offers a fairly straight-forward New Age message about life, death and the source of true consolation during the grieving process.
The opening quotation from Job reads as follows: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” As you may recall, Job is the story of a righteous man whose faith God consents to let Satan test by (among other trials) killing all ten of his children. Job endures his enormous grief without cursing God, despite encouragement from his friends to do so, though he eventually comes to curse the day he himself was born.
This story has received various spiritual interpretations over the centuries; the one that resonates most powerfully for this film concerns the ineffability of God’s intentions, the inability of man to grasp God’s larger plans, and the part played by humility and an acceptance of such limits in true religious faith. The film’s opening quote suggests that God thinks on a time and celestial scale vaster than man can comprehend, infinitely larger than any one individual’s joy or grief.
By including the long sequence that runs from the Big Bang, through the creation of Earth and the origins of life on our planet, up to the story of the O’Brien family in 1950s rural Texas, Malick places his story within this larger context. While the family drama may consume its members, their individual passions, guilt and grieving process are minuscule within the larger universal context. Their journey is about gaining perspective on their actual place within that universe, a journey from solipsism to transcendence.
This journey is best exemplified by Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) in her attempt to reconcile personal grief with her belief in a Christian God’s mercy and grace. Early in the film, she learns that her 19-year-old son R.L. (Laramie Eppler) has died, and various people attempt to offer consolation during her grieving process.
The grandmother lists off a whole slew of platitudes: “You have your memories of him. You have to be strong now. I know the pain will pass in time. You know, it might seem hard, my saying that, but it’s true. Life goes on. People pass along, nothing stays the same. You’ve still got the other two [children]. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away and that’s the way he is. He sends flies to wounds that he should heal.” Then her minister offers more rote consolation — “He’s in God’s hands now.”
Mrs. O’Brien replies, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” If God is good and cares about us, why does he makes us suffer?
In voice-over, as she turns to scripture for consolation, her doubts intrude in the middle of a verse: “What did you gain?” she asks, presumably of God. She later asks, “Was I false to you?” — as if there is a reason why her son has died, as if the God of her personal faith is concerned in the minutiae of her life and has punished her for some infraction. “Lord, why?” she then asks. “Where were you?”
Malick’s answer to that question is the following magnificent sequence in which he unfolds the history of the universe. To me, it exposes the irrelevance of her personal concerns within the vastness of time. It also says that to ask such a question is entirely solipsistic and vain, to believe that you matter so very much. In this way, while apparently framed in terms of Christian theology, the film’s message is more spiritual than Christian. Especially in the final sequence, where Mrs. O’Brien emerges from the grieving process by giving her son over to God and the universe, she has come to understand that she is a part (only a tiny part, but a part nonetheless) of something much larger: The Tree of Life. To appreciate the beauty and goodness of that larger whole, to feel a part of it and to rejoice in that beauty is to transcend individual pain and suffering.
The Tree of Life also includes a message about the importance of love and forgiveness in its debate between “grace” and “nature.” Mr. O’Brien’s story (Brad Pitt) exemplifies the futility of nature, which “only tries to please itself,” while Mrs. O’Brien seems almost angelic in her selfless and loving acceptance of those around her.
At first blush, it may seem as if these are Christian virtues, but within the film’s larger context and her personal evolution, it seems that “love” is less about what one feels for others than what one feels as an integral part of the universe itself (an aspect of self-love as I’ve discussed elsewhere). This, in the end, is the film’s core spiritual message: that fulfillment in life comes neither from individual, solipsistic striving nor from adhering to Christian virtues, but rather through a kind of rapturous merger with life as a whole, the joy that springs from an appreciation for the beauty of something much larger than one’s individual self.
Only this kind of “grace” allows us to endure the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of our brief lifespans; attempts to discover the meaning of our personal existence, or to decipher the illusory intentions of a God supposedly concerned with the minutiae of our lives, in the end yield scant consolation.
The Tree of Life is a deeply spiritual movie but not a religious one. Its beautiful, ardent imagery argues for the existence of God; but this God, it tells us, is everywhere, in everything, less a discrete being unfolding an ineffable plan for us than one embodying the vast and awesome beauty of the universe as a whole. Feeling oneself to be an integral part of that universe is the ultimate consolation for the grieving process, as well as for the existential pain of being alive.